Rework on Rock Stars: Academe, are you listening?

Software entrepreneurs Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson are the co-authors of Rework (2010), a pithy book about management and leadership. Inspired by the Seth Godin School of Succinctness (in fact, Godin blurbs the book), it’s a collection of several dozen short mini-chapters devoted to managing and working with people and creating positive work environments.

Chasing rock stars

Fried and Hansson urge organizations to skip the pursuit of a handful of “rock stars.” Instead, companies should work hard on creating a “rock star environment” that unleashes the best that everyone has to offer. They note that “there’s a ton of untapped potential trapped under lame policies, poor direction, and stifling bureaucracies.” Eliminate that and other bad stuff and “you’ll find that people are waiting to do great work.”

Academe’s devotion to star chasing

If only the higher education industry could heed these words! All too often, the obsession with hiring rock star faculty overcomes any notions of building a rock star work environment.

Academe is in the midst of an era positively consumed by matters of institutional reputation and prestige. As such, many colleges and universities break open their piggy banks to recruit and hire “superstar” faculty who, they believe, will take them to greater heights. Any sense of logic or fairness concerning salaries and perks goes way out of kilter, creating valid resentment among others not so favored.

Inevitably, some of the supposed rock stars bring a rock star ‘tude while falling short of rock star performance. Too bad these schools haven’t learned the lessons of the National Basketball Association, whose franchises throw piles of money at young men who act like they belong in the Hall of Fame before they’ve even made their first all star team.

In reality, academe is filled with smart, hardworking people who teach well, contribute quality scholarship in their field, and render service to their institutions and the public. The true, genuine superstars, however, are few and far between. Academic institutions, trapped in their own culture of hype and prestige, frequently overlook this basic truth.

What’s your Plan B?

A late friend once told me that everyone should have a “Plan B.” By that he meant, have a plan for making a living if you somehow lose your current job, vocation, or trade.

In my friend’s case, he was preaching what he had practiced. Many years ago, he had lost his job as a college philosophy professor in an apparently bitter set of layoffs. (I sensed that he was not at liberty to share details).  His Plan B was to turn to his love of music. He became the music director at a large church, he got gigs helping to produce local musicals, and he was the accompanist for an adult education singing workshop that I have taken for years.

He didn’t make a lot of money, but he apparently made ends meet, and — clearly — he liked his work. Music brought him great joy, and he loved being around others who shared that devotion.

Ask yourself

So, what’s your Plan B? Have you given it much thought?

I confess, I’ve been giving it a lot of thought over the past year. Although my job as a tenured law professor may appear to be secure, I have deep concerns about the financial viability of higher education, as I have written here (higher ed generally) and here (legal education). I believe that many colleges and universities are headed for a painful reckoning, and it will affect salaries, working conditions, and job security.

In my case, I envision the need for a Plan B under two scenarios: One involves the basic meltdown of legal education as we know it, in which case many of us would lose our jobs outright. The other is less apocalyptic, involving sharp pay cuts that cause a need for additional income.

At this point, I have the rough parameters of my Plan B in mind. However, I have a lot more thinking, planning, and learning to do before I’m ready to execute it — if the need arises. What I’m sharing in this post includes some of the resources that I’m looking at to help me get there.


The typical Plan B involves doing work somewhat different from one’s current or previous job. This takes some thinking through and, quite often, additional training or learning. I don’t pretend to know all of the countless resources, but here are some to consider:

What Color is Your Parachute?

Richard N. Bolles’s bestselling career manual What Color is Your Parachute? remains a classic. It’s affordable, thought provoking, supportive, and useful — an excellent starting place for Plan B planners everywhere.

The book is faithfully updated every year, and the 2011 edition is at the bookstores. Evidence of its current relevance is apparent from Chapter 1, which acknowledges that the job market “is a mess, right now.” Nevertheless, it’s an encouraging book that reminds us that “millions of job-hunters have found jobs this year, in spite of everything, as we are going to see. And I want to help you join them.”

Peak Learning

Ronald Gross’s Peak Learning (rev. ed. 1999), authored by one of the nation’s leading adult educators, collects some of the best research and advice about self-education and independent learning, applicable to both career development and individual fulfillment. The book is especially useful for self-motivated and well-organized learners who know what they want and need to study. It’s a little dated, but the basic information is very sound. Inexpensive copies are available on

Adult education centers

Most metropolitan areas are host to non-profit and proprietary adult education centers that offer short-term courses for career development, self-improvement, and personal enrichment. One good example in my city is the Boston Center for Adult Education. It may be worth browsing through the BCAE courses (some of which can be taken online) to get a sense of what offerings are available for those seeking to augment their skills or change careers. offers low-priced, continuing education courses by distance learning in many subjects related to career development, entrepreneurship, and assorted vocational fields, awarding continuing education units (CEUs) for successful completion. I have not taken any classes through the site, but it looks like a promising source of education and training that doesn’t demand the time commitment of taking courses for credit.

DIY graduate school

Last year, writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin suggested in a blog post (link here) addressed to unemployed college graduates that they create a sort of do-it-yourself grad school practicum by doing things such as running a project for a non-profit, learning the ins-and-outs of popular computer programs, and writing detailed business plans for projects in industries of interest. There’s abundant food for thought in that short post, even for folks at the mid-career stage.

Career coach

For some, a career coach may be helpful. To get a sense of what kind of assistance may be available, check out the Career Planning and Management, Inc. website. Dan King, a member of the New Workplace Institute advisory committee, is a founder and principal.

Time for a degree or certificate?

I’ve intentionally saved this one for last. For many people, retooling involves going back to school for some type of master’s or professional degree. It’s not a bad idea, but only, and I mean ONLY, if you have settled on a career path in which the degree is necessary or highly desirable and it makes sense — in the long term — to invest in what is likely to be an expensive and time-consuming proposition. In many instances, an additional degree is not necessary to pursue a meaningful Plan B. Some less demanding forms of continuing education will suffice.

In lieu of a degree, a certificate program that includes a core set of courses but requires roughly half the time of most master’s degree programs may be a viable option. A good certificate program can provide valuable training and instruction and even some networking leads.

Start now

If you are fortunate to be gainfully employed, it won’t hurt you to contemplate your Plan B. For those of us who have assumed that our positions are safe, I suggest that we consider the major companies and seemingly secure jobs that have disappeared during the Great Recession.

If you have lost your job, you have every right to be anxious and perhaps angry. I won’t lard up this post with lies and motivational claptrap about how every instance of adversity is really a golden opportunity, but I will observe that plenty of people have used these setbacks as a spur toward something better in their lives.

A nation of Plan Bs

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I am not terribly optimistic about the American economy and the ability of our public, civic, and business leaders to reverse our current situation. I think a lot of folks are going to be pursuing their Plan Bs whether they like it or not. The more pro-active we are about developing those alternatives, the better the chances are that we’ll survive the ups-and-downs to come and secure work that pays the bills and brings personal fulfillment.

Surgeon goes public with mistake: When personal ethics trump cultures of cover up

One of the sad realities about many professions is how they find ways to hide the mistakes of their practitioners from the public. All too often, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals are not held accountable for even the most serious errors of judgment and practice.

That’s why this piece by Boston Globe healthcare blogger Elizabeth Cooney (link here) caught my eye:

In the same issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that contains a research article confirming the value of surgical checklists, a Boston surgeon tells his story of performing the wrong operation on a patient, one misstep at a time.

Cooney reports the story of “Dr. David Ring, a hand and arm surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital,” who described in his report “a cascade of errors and omissions,” resulting in the doctor “performing the wrong operation on his patient’s finger.” Upon realizing his mistake soon after the surgery, Ring informed the patient, who allowed him to do the correct procedure. Later on, he took steps to alleviate the burden of the mistake on the patient.

Ring apparently decided to go public with his error to highlight the importance of using checklists and protocols to reduce the likelihood of patient errors associated with surgery. His Case Record in the New England Journal of Medicine can be accessed here. It provides an interesting look at how patient errors are reviewed by healthcare professionals.

I’m not suggesting that we celebrate Dr. Ring as being a hero for doing the right thing after a serious mistake, but I do think he deserves credit for his forthright actions and sense of personal accountability. For a variety of reasons ranging from impact on career prospects to risk of malpractice litigation, there exists an unfortunate and significant incentive for professionals to hide their mistakes, and too often the cultures of our professions buy into those sentiments. Thank goodness not everyone believes in practicing that way.

How does the NLRB’s Facebook firing complaint relate to the struggle against workplace bullying?

Rapidly making its way around the world of employment relations is the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) decision to file a complaint against an employer for firing an employee for posting critical comments about her supervisor on Facebook. As reported by Steven Greenhouse for the New York Times (link here):

In what labor officials and lawyers view as a ground-breaking case involving workers and social media, the National Labor Relations Board has accused a company of illegally firing an employee after she criticized her supervisor on her Facebook page.

This is the first case in which the labor board has stepped in to argue that workers’ criticisms of their bosses or companies on a social networking site are generally a protected activity and that employers would be violating the law by punishing workers for such statements.

The case will be heard early next year.

Legal background

Here’s a quick primer on the legal background behind the case: The National Labor Relations Act, the main federal law governing labor unions, collective bargaining, and collective worker action, protects workers who “engage in…concerted activities for the purpose of…mutual aid or protection.” Typically this provision of the law is invoked when workers are organizing support for unions or taking part in union activities, but it also applies to many non-union work situations as well.

The NLRB is the federal agency charged with enforcing federal labor law. Its complaint in the Facebook case is based on the concerted activities provision of federal labor law. In essence, the Board believes that the worker was engaging in protected concerted activity by posting her concerns on Facebook for the purpose of engaging fellow employees in the discussion.

Not a general free speech protection

Even if the Board prevails, this will not mean that workers have a general free speech right to criticize their employers, supervisors, or co-workers. It will extend only to those situations where workers covered by the National Labor Relations Act can establish that their speech was a form of protected concerted activity — in other words, non-defamatory exchanges with co-workers for the purpose of mutual aid or protection.

Many workers are not protected by the NLRA

In addition, it is vital to note that many workers are not protected by the NLRA.  Expressly excluded from coverage are supervisors, independent contractors, domestic and agricultural workers, and family member employees.  In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that managerial and confidential employees are excluded as well. All told, some 40 percent or more of the American workforce is not protected by the NLRA, including the concerted activities provision cited above.

Possible protections for anti-bullying advocates, but ask a labor lawyer first

Thus, the National Labor Relations Act may provide potential legal protections for workers who are raising concerns with co-workers about bullying behaviors, including exchanges via sites such as Facebook. However, this assumes the activities are truly “concerted” within the meaning of the law and that the workers are not exempt from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act.

In any event, I strongly urge workers considering federal labor law as a source of legal protection to seek the advice of a qualified labor lawyer, rather than blithely making the assumption that they are covered.

Bottom Line

I fear that many workers will grasp only the headlines about this case, mistakenly assume that they have a carte blanche legal right to criticize their bosses online or elsewhere, and pay for it with their jobs. I hope the commentary above will help to clarify what this case means at this juncture.


Background articles

The National Labor Relations Act and workplace bullying

I explored the potential application of the National Labor Relations Act to bullying situations in my first law review on workplace bullying and American employment law, David C. Yamada, “The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection,” 88 Georgetown Law Journal 475 (2000), at pages 517-521. The entire article can be downloaded without charge, here.

Employee free speech rights

For those who want to learn more about employee free speech rights in the private sector, this slightly dated but still informative law review article may be of interest: David C. Yamada, “Voices from the Cubicle: Protecting and Encouraging Private Employee Speech in the Post-Industrial Workplace,” 19 Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law 1 (1998), which can be downloaded without charge, here.


Addendum: Employment lawyer Jon Hyman, host of the always informative Ohio Employer’s Law Blog, rounds up the sea of commentary on this pending case here.


The legal commentary in this post and this blog generally is for educational purposes only and cannot substitute for the advice of an attorney.


Feb. 2011 update — The parties involved in this case announced a settlement of their dispute on Feb. 7. As reported by Steven Musil for CNET (link here):

A Connecticut ambulance company that fired an employee after she criticized her boss on Facebook agreed today to settle a complaint brought by the National Labor Relations Board.

The NLRB sued American Medical Response of Connecticut on October 27, 2010, claiming the employee, Dawnmarie Souza, was illegally fired and denied union representation after she posted negative comments about her supervisor to her Facebook page. According to copies of Souza’s Facebook posts obtained by CNET, she called her supervisor a “dick” in one and “a scumbag” in another.

Although the case was getting a lot of media and public attention, it’s far from sure that the NLRB’s decision would’ve led to any groundbreaking changes in the law. Indeed, I would stick with my warnings, shared above, that this case does not mean that workers have unfettered rights to post critical comments about their bosses or co-workers on social media sites or the Internet generally.

Public sector retirement meltdown: Coming soon to a state near you

Last week I wrote a long post about America’s coming retirement crisis. Part of the article examined the alarming status of many public sector pension funds, and I quoted from a Business Insider piece reporting that 11 state pension funds that are projected to run out of money within the next decade or so and that the public may be on the hook legally to fulfill those obligations.

Still more

Pension obligations are not the only looming bills. For example, public entities in New York have promised future retirees some $200 billion in health care benefits and have failed to set aside a penny to pay for it, according to a study released by the Empire Center for New York State Policy summarized by Mary Williams Walsh in the New York Times (link here):

The cities, counties and authorities of New York have promised more than $200 billion worth of health benefits to their retirees while setting aside almost nothing, putting the public work force on a collision course with the taxpayers who are expected to foot the bill.

…The daunting size of the health care obligation raises the possibility that localities will be forced at some point to choose between paying their retirees’ medical costs and paying the investors who hold their bonds. Government officials aim to satisfy both groups, and have even made painful cuts in local services when necessary to keep up with both sets of payments.

Bracing choices

In other words, many states have not stored away enough money to cover what they have promised to public sector retirees. Here are among the possible consequences:

1. Raise taxes to meet public retiree obligations. This may mean that individuals who are struggling to save and provide for their own retirement needs may be hit with a higher tax bill.

2. Cut state services to meet public retiree obligations. In other words, the general public will receive less in state services — including education, public safety, and social services — and there will be fewer public jobs available for the next generation of workers.

3. Reduce public retiree obligations. This may be achieved by forcing givebacks (and, where necessary, amending state constitutions that require states to pay pensions owed). Of course, generating sufficient political will to do so will be accompanied by the media demonization of public workers, including teachers, firefighters, and other essential personnel, who bargained in good faith for these benefits when the economic picture was rosier. The state and local officials who agreed to these benefits and who have been raiding public pension funds to pay for other expenses likely will not be so vilified.

Obligations to current and future public employee retirees are going to be a huge political and economic issue in the years to come, and the picture is getting uglier by the moment. Will public officials act now to soften the inevitable conflicts? I doubt it: When faced with an array of unpleasant choices that can be bequeathed to one’s successors, the natural political reaction is to put the concern on the shelf. It will require bold, even career-endangering leadership to soften the impact of what is to come.

Website of the Week: CiviliNation

Through Facebook I recently was introduced to CiviliNation, a non-profit education and research group dedicated to advancing civility in cyberspace. Founded in 2009, CiviliNation (website here) describes itself this way:

Our mission is to foster an online culture where every person can freely participate in a democratic, open, rational and truth-based exchange of ideas and information, without fear or threat of being the target of unwarranted abuse, harassment, or lies.

I believe this organization holds a lot of promise to raise awareness and influence our national discussion about online civility, harassment, and bullying. CiviliNation’s founder and president is Andrea Weckerle, a Washington D.C.-based attorney and communications consultant. She’s well connected; her board includes Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia. The seeds are there for important work to be done.

And we sure do need it. The Internet’s marvels are matched increasingly by its nastiness. Through some combination of education, consciousness raising, and regulation, we need to save ourselves from ruining cyberspace. Here’s hoping that organizations like CiviliNation can help to lead the way.

Do organizations suppress our empathy?

Economist and social commentator Jeremy Rifkin is one of today’s most wide-ranging and visionary thinkers, having written important works on the future of work, the European Union, and — now — the role of empathy in shaping modern society. In The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (2009), he lays out the case for a global future shaped by qualities of empathy.

Soft wired for empathy

Okay, I confess: I haven’t found the time to read Rifkin’s thick tome. Fortunately, however, I was alerted to a delightful 10-minute animated version:

According to Rifkin, cutting-edge neuropsychological research indicates that “we are soft wired to experience another’s plight as if we are experiencing it ourselves” (2:25 of tape). In addition, we are “soft wired for sociability, attachment, affection, [and] companionship” (4:57). Our sense of empathy “is grounded in the acknowledgment of death and the celebration of life” (4:50 of video).

Bystander abandonment

If this is the case, then why do so many people abandon or run from others who are being bullied, harassed, or otherwise mistreated?

Let’s say an individual is bullied at school or at work.  All too often, friends and associates dive for cover, leaving the target standing alone (figuratively and sometimes literally). That sense of abandonment only heightens the stress and isolation of the situation.

We should be rushing to the target’s side, yes? What happens to cause an almost opposite reaction? The easy answer, not wholly incorrect, is that we fear similar mistreatment or retaliation. However, there’s more to it. Something has conditioned us to expect those possibilities.

Cultures of fear

That conditioning mechanism may be the culture of institutions that teach us to abandon the target, lest we, too, become one of them. And sadly, it’s not just horrific, worst-case settings such as concentration camps that create and embrace cultures of fear. Bad schools and workplaces do too.

In the case of schools, kids learn very early that targets of bullying are outcasts. Heaven forbid that we risk our social standing or sense of security to help someone being picked on, even if those whose approval we seek happen to be mean-spirited jerks. Not infrequently, the schools themselves fail to take assertive action to prevent or stop bullying, especially if the latter situation involves popular kids being the aggressors.

Fast-forward to the workplace: A feared boss, or perhaps a popular co-worker, bullies another employee. Once again, the target is abandoned by colleagues and the employer alike. Cycles of abuse and abandonment repeat themselves among adults.

Time to re-wire?

Watching that 10-minute video, one is filled with a sense of hope about the possible triumph of our better natures. But if the history of bullying in schools and workplaces is any indication, it won’t be easy to reach that higher place. It behooves us to keep pushing forward, so that someday we’ll get there.


Hat tip to writer R. Jeffreys for the Rifkin video link.

%d bloggers like this: